Roots and wings brought this family back together on a slice of coastal land in Northland where they’re flourishing — pandemic be damned.
Words: Kate Coughlan Photos: Jane Ussher
Vanessa and Richard Owen thought they had this business of life nicely sorted. Driftwood, an idyllic property on the Te Puna Inlet in the Bay of Islands, was their perfect home and, on the water’s edge, was an additional small cottage to share with holiday guests or family.
At the beginning of 2020, their three daughters were overseas and showing no signs of returning to live in New Zealand. Dione, Poppy and Milli (then 26, 24 and 20) worked on superyachts, mainly around the Mediterranean and Aegean and were based in Russia, Malta and Majorca, Spain.
In 2018, Vanessa and Richard, whose business since they arrived in New Zealand aboard their yacht 29 years ago, has been home renovations and accommodation, decided that if the girls wouldn’t come all the way home for holidays, then they’d take holidays to their girls.
They bought a small cottage in an olive grove on a Greek island and structured their accommodation business, Driftwood Seaside Escapes, to close during the southern hemisphere winters so they could fly north for a daughter-filled summer.
It wasn’t such a leap into the unknown as the island had been home to Vanessa’s mother for 40 years. Vanessa (she and Richard are originally from England) and her siblings joined their mother on the island for many long and languid summer holidays in their youth. And for the glorious Ionian summer of 2019 (the year Vanessa turned 50), that was what happened.
Richard, their then 12-year-old son Reef and Vanessa shared the summer with the three girls in the shade of those Greek olive trees and idly planned for the many, many more holidays they were sure would follow.
“Driftwood was going to be my home until my dying days, and our holiday home in Greece was where we’d go every winter to see the girls,” says Vanessa.
The pandemic brought the girls scurrying home from Europe to the safety of relatively pandemic-free New Zealand. Their partners came, too. Poor Reef, his life as an only child was suddenly upended, and he became the baby of the family with three big sisters in charge. The girls moved back into their childhood bedrooms, and the house rocked.
Before long, it became apparent there wasn’t enough room for this loud and happy crowd to grow harmoniously into the suddenly too-small corners of Driftwood.
“So, what do you do?” asks Vanessa, usually a 5am-riser with a daunting daily to-do list. “It’s level 4, so you lie in bed and trawl the internet looking at property for sale. And you look, and you look, and you look.” She had the feeling that her daughters might have lived out their overseas lives and be ready to settle back in New Zealand, and she longed to see if she could keep the family together on a property that would allow them all to flourish.
“I wanted to stay on our stretch of water, the Te Puna Inlet. It’s our home port, so it was a very small area, but I was looking for somewhere big enough to house four kids and their partners.
“We found it while lying in bed at level 4 — Rich and I on the internet — and we did all the negotiations at level 4. Then on the first day of level 3, 2020, we settled sight unseen.”
The little they knew about their new property came from recollections while onboard their yacht (Barefoot) moored in a bay below it, from past visits to adjacent neighbours and hours of Google Earth snooping.
So that’s how the arrival of the Delta variant in New Zealand and the subsequent August 2021 lockdown found them: in a family compound on the edge of the sea with vegetable gardens and well-stocked cocktail cabinets. Richard, Vanessa and their tribe of 14 on just over 44 hectares with five houses (two usually used for paying guests), a dressage arena and stables (for the horse-mad Milli) and a newly planted vineyard of 62 sangiovese grapes acknowledging Richard’s recently celebrated 62nd birthday.
“We had the biggest bubble in the world and were extraordinarily lucky that our amazing young daughters gave up fabulous careers to join this family vision. Maybe not by choice, but they’re doing it.
“Dione, our workaholic, has designed and renovated a railway carriage tiny home herself. She runs our family café [The Fishbone in Kerikeri], and she runs our family kitchen in the main house [although the girls also have their own kitchens, guess where they eat the most?] Dione also maintains the family’s kitchen garden and is building a home renovation business.
“Poppy and her girlfriend Brogan have set up Handy Her, an amazing business that adds the female touch to the traditional handyman services. They also work remotely in recruitment, wearing corporate garb from the waist up and PJs below.
“Milli, at only 22, is a phenomenal horsewoman — her business is going ballistic breaking in wild horses, using the ocean to tame them, and teaching and connecting humans and horses.
“A specialty field is connecting grown-up businesswomen with their never-forgotten childhood love of horses. She does this with weekend clinics. And in Richard’s fabulous music room, he has rekindled his love of writing lyrics and used his lockdown time to start recording his first EP.”
And you, Vanessa?
“Me? I’m the ringmaster in all this. I feel our story is about how we are learning and growing as a family when traditionally we’d be going separate ways. I am eternally grateful that we made a move when we did and could all be together. We gather for Sunday lunch and usually for Friday night cocktails.
“I don’t want to sound like I am insensitive to how it is for other people during lockdown, but I felt blessed. My biggest annoyance of lockdown was something as pathetic and trivial as finding one of the girls had raided my fridge and taken a prized chunk of parmesan (which I had planned for dinner with pasta, herbs and lemon juice). When these are your biggest rubs, you know you are lucky, and I am always grateful for that.”
This time, the Owen house renovations are driven by principles very different to those that previously guided Richard and Vanessa’s doing-up of 100+ houses around the Kerikeri area.
“This is our forever house,” she says. “It really is. It is our last home. This is where we stand; this is who we are. So every decision is made with a deaf ear to the little voice that has driven our other renovations: ‘Resale.’
“I was always thinking, ‘What will the real estate agent say? If only you’d added an en suite… Why didn’t you do this or that?’”
The house, this time, is a challenge. Oddly, its narrow, angular lines remind her of the austere castles of her British childhood, with straight-walled stone staircases leading to turrets. Rich thinks this is just Vanessa being a bit mad, but they agree that it is their forever home.
“When I really couldn’t see any way of making this very strange house into our family home (even with so many renovations under my belt), my exceedingly clever friend Dr Elspeth Dickson gave me the vision and guided me through it on Facetime.
“Every decision needs provenance; colours that my grandmother had in her parlour mean something. The piece of crockery we bought on our honeymoon 35 years ago is important. Even the vines we planted for Rich’s birthday vineyard had to have provenance.
“They were sourced for us by David Hoskins and Mary Evans of Heron’s Flight Vineyard in Matakana. Not long after we arrived in New Zealand 29 years ago, they kindly gave us a bottle of their beautiful red wine, and it tasted like the best red in the world to us. So we asked David to help establish our vineyard.
“And every decision is looked at in a long-term context. The vineyard is on the flattest piece of land, close to the house, so Rich can manage it when he gets older.
“Our last vineyard was halfway up a steep hill, so no one went there. We are thinking very differently with this project. We are thinking, ‘How will this work for the rest of our lives?’
“We have stepped back completely from the tyranny of ‘resale’. And it is liberating to think that how we live as a family, how we live as a couple, how the house tells the story of our travels and passions, and what we want in our home is without any pressure worrying about what a real estate agent coming in two years might say.”
During the lockdown, the family stretched out into every corner of Driftwood Paradise — even into the two houses, which (in normal times) provide the family with income from paying guests along with their other businesses. (In addition to the café, the family owns The Merchants of Kerikeri, a “junk and disorderly” type of emporium selling the wonderful, the arcane and the collectable.)
“Roots and wings — that is what it is all about. I never thought our kids could be better traveled than Richard and me, but they are. However, when Covid altered the world, their deep roots came back to this place, and we came back together as a family really, really closely.
“The girls have done their traveling and are now looking at how they can stay in this extraordinary part of the world and have businesses to earn an income and raise their families here. Rich and I would need a crowbar to move them off this land now.
“Don’t imagine that we are some picture-postcard family. Raising them, we just screamed and shouted a lot of the time like every other family. And, of course, we have our issues. I used to say to Richard, ‘Thank God we live in the middle of nowhere with all this noise.’ But now we are all living and working together, it really is fabulous.”
While Vanessa and Richard currently own the property, the next step will be to establish a long-term stake for each of their four children.
“This is something we probably should have done initially, but we wanted first to establish that it would work. That’s the most important thing about pulling together a family compound. It is not easy to live together as adults when your kids have been independent for years.
“Our girls all left home really young — it’s more than a decade since Dione and Poppy lived with us. It is also very easy to fall into parent/child scenarios, which we try really hard not to. We needed to dive in headfirst and if it proves to work — and it is — tidy up the details.
“I love it that we can make day-to-day living easier for our kids as they are all such hard workers. What we have created has helped them have sweeter lives.” Vanessa says she can be a bit of a “grumpy rock”. She says she’s always there, but not always with good grace. “Family living at its best.”
This article first appeared in NZ Life & Leisure Magazine.